I must admit my purchase of this book was dictated by the knowledge that its titular short story was the basis for Nic Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now – a favourite and one of the best weird films of the ’70s.
This title has been given to a number of du Maurier collections featuring variant stories, so it’s worth noting that my version contained ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘Not After Midnight’, A Border-Line Case’, ‘The Way of the Cross’ and ‘The Breakthrough’.
The good news is that the stories that follow the first are all as good – or better, in the case of ‘Not After Midnight’ – than the most famous entry.
The bad news is that if you’ve come looking for the text version of Roeg’s film, you’ll probably be disappointed. The story is quite different from the film – understandable when you consider that the story is a mere 50 pages and couldn’t possibly contain enough to pad out an entire feature. However, it becomes obvious that Roeg’s film channels the author’s penchant for strangeness, ably explored in the rest of the tales.
The only thread running throughout the stories is a feeling of Very English Strangeness. There’s different settings, different concerns – tour groups, mysterious artefacts, the Holy Land, the Troubles, spirits and ESP – but each is grounded with a feeling of strangeness, of something being off-kilter, ever so slightly.
Mood is created quickly in these works. Characters and locales are sketched sparingly but effectively, with ‘The Way of the Cross’ a winner in the claustrophobia stakes. Of the out-and-out strange stories, ‘Not After Midnight’ has an almost Lovecraftian foreboding to it, while ‘The Breakthrough’ pokes around in life’s offstage machinery. In all the stories, though, is a feeling of freshness, despite the sometimes dated vernacular.
There’s something mannered in du Maurier’s style, but it fits with the slightly out-of-step feeling of the stories. There’s some elements glossed over which a more recent writer would probably expose, though I feel there’s nothing lost for this coyness. There’s a touch of cringeworthy phrasing (apparently guileless entries about ‘homos’ and the participants in the history of Jerusalem) but having read all of Fleming’s Bond books recently, it’s easy to navigate.
I look forward to digging into more of these type of stories. They’re redolent of weird/sci-fi fiction which was so prevalent (and good!) in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s not quite Ballard, but it’s bloody good.